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Sunday, February 17, 2013

Pope Portraits

International portrait artist Igor Babailov
is seen finishing his portrait of Pope
Benedict XVI.
When a pope quits for the first time in six-hundred years, that makes news. I'm a news junkie. I don't spend all my time writing about art and artists. However, whenever I can, I like to combine the two, which set me thinking about art and popes, specifically papal portraits. Let me tell you, over the past two millenniums there have been (pardon the irreverence) some doozies. I've used the phrase, good, bad, and ugly so many times it borders on becoming trite, but believe me, this is a case when it's exquisitely appropriate. Starting with the most recent papal portrait (2010) by the Russian trained, American artist, Igor Babailov of Pope Benedict XVI, The Truth, the Way and the Life (left) is not just good, but excellent. He also painted Pope John Paul III, titled Believe (2004).

Pope Alexander VI. In 1492, he is
said to have "bought" the papacy.
The designation for the worst papal portrait of all times goes to an unknown artist painting what many would consider the worst pope all time, Alexander VI, the infamous Rodrigo Borgia (right). The artist should have been excommunicated (by all accounts, the same could be said of the pope). It also fits in the "ugly" category remarkably well. However, when it comes to ugly, it would be hard to match the painting of Pope Formosus by French artist, Jean Paul Laurens, painted in 1870, some one thousand years after the pope died (below). That fact, however is of little consequence in that he depicted the pope as dead, propped up on his throne in the ludicrous "Cadaver Trial" of 897 in which the deceased pope was disinterred by his successor, tried, found guilty of perjury, his body burned, reburied, disinterred a second time, and then thrown in the Tiber. Whew...the most hated pope of all time?
Le Pape Formose et Étienne VII, 1870, Jean Paul Laurens

Pope Anicetus,
Antonio Circignani
The Catholic church counts 265 popes starting with the apostle Peter. Although many painted images of St. Peter exist, it's highly unlikely any of them could be considered portraits. The same could be said for most, if not all, of the popes for the first two or three centuries, though one, a fresco of the second century pope Anicetus (left, 155-166), said to be painted by Antonio Circignani (AKA Pomaramio) is so well done and distinctly natural it might well be considered the first authentic papal portrait. It's also the first papal portrait to be attributed to a known artist. Several very known artists have painted popes. Their works have risen to the level of fine art superseding the papal personage of their sitter. Some of the artists, Raphael, Titian, Velazquez, among others, are household names. The popes they painted...not so much (bottom). Raphael's Portrait of Pope Leo X (1518-19, below, right) is a group portrait including two influential cardinals (the power behind the papal throne, perhaps). Titian gives us a similar, somewhat sinister grouping in his portrait of Pope Paul III with his Grandsons (1546, below, left).

Pope Leo X with Two Cardinals,
1518-19) Raphael
Pope Paul III with his Grandsons,

Three of the best from the most famous papal artusts, each influencing the next
(a) Raphael, Pope Julius II. 1511. (b) Titian, Pope Paul III. 1543. (c) Velázquez,
Pope Innocent X. 1650.

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